2011: The Year of Big Days

by Greg Neise on December 30, 2011

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On January 27, Skrentny sent me a text: “BTW, after going through Northern Illinois Big Day records, I declare now that after the next three seasons of birding, I want us to be on every month, and number one for a few.”

By “three seasons” he meant three years (he’s a Cubs fan), so I said, “What the hell? Let’s do all 12 in a row, starting now,” and the Year of Big Days was born.

Neotropic Cormorant, July 24, 2011

I have to say, it has been the most fun I’ve had birding since I began nearly 40 years ago, when everything was new and exciting. As we built momentum, we attracted the interest of some of Illinois’ great birders, and soon we had a team (with backup!). Joining us on various days were Adam Sell, Randy Shonkwiler, Josh Engel and our perennial partner, Karen Mansfield.

In January and February, we stayed fairly close to Chicago, sticking with places we knew well. In March, we began including the “bend” of the Illinois River, some 100 miles to the southwest. That was one of our most interesting days, because we had competition. Another team from the Chicago area was going for the March record on the same day … and following the same route! Although we met our goal of beating the published record for that month, the other team beat our total by 6 birds that day.

That was a reminder of how you can’t let anything slip past when you’re doing a big day (or a big year, for that matter). The morning was quite cold, and it didn’t enter into my realm of possibilities to try for rails. The other team got both Sora and Virginia Rail. They also got very lucky. There were two “gimme” birds on the Chicago lakefront, a Cinnamon Teal and a Black-legged Kittiwake. Jeff and I both live in Chicago and know very, very well just how bad traffic can be … even on a Sunday afternoon. We opted to skip the birds in the city, because there was a better than 50% chance that we’d get stuck in traffic, and not be able to make it up to a harbor an hour north that was full of gulls.

We made it up to Winthrop Harbor, on the Wisconsin border, with about an hour of daylight left … and added 4 gull species very quickly. The other team went into the city, grabbed the two “gimmes” and somehow made it out again, and up to Winthrop Harbor with just enough daylight to get the 4 gulls, and had a flyover Great Black-backed. Damn! We’ll be looking to take that record back 90 days from now.

1cy Slaty-backed Gull, June 5, 2011

The thrill of a big day is that nothing is simple, and nothing can be taken for granted. Example: in November, we whiffed on Mourning Dove. We’ve almost missed Herring Gull twice. We follow ABA rules—in particular, the 95% rule—which states that 95% of total species submitted have to be seen or heard—and identification agreed upon—by all team members. When the team is two people, that’s pretty easy. When it’s 4 people … not so easy. But 4 people will simply find more birds than 2, so it’s well worth the extra work. Plus, birding as a team and adhering to the 95% rule, makes you a better birder.

We had some great birds on our 12 days, including a Neotropic Cormorant (July), and the best bird of the year (for me) a Slaty-backed Gull (June) … although that species is provisional until the IORC rules on the record.

So, as a whole, what did the year look like? Well, here’s our numbers:

MonthRecord to beatNeise/Skrentny total
67 (01/30/09 D. Stotz)
72 (1/30)
66 (02/28/09 P. Moxon, J. Smith)
86 (2/27)
100 (03/30/10 B. Heimer, G. Neise, A. Sigler)
107 (3/27)
136 (04/30/66 C. Clark, C. Westcott)
139 (4/30 w/ K. Mansfield, R. Shonkwiler)
174 (05/16/05 A. Frohlich, V. Kleen, K. McKay)
153 (5/19)
129 (06/02/06 C. Gordon, J. Lill, J. Sundberg, K. Sundberg)
140 (6/5 w/ K. Mansfield, A. Sell)
115 (07/29/09 J. Lill, J. Sundberg)
124 (7/24 w/ K. Mansfield, A. Sell)
120 (08/25/05 D. Stotz)
133 (8/17 w/ K. Mansfield, A. Sell)
129 (09/27/91 W. Marcisz, W. Serafin, E. Walters)
146* (9/18 w/ K. Mansfield, J. Engel)
113 (10/01/67 C. Clark)
128** (10/2 w/ A. Sell, J. Engel)
83 (11/03/05 D. Stotz)
90 (11/5 w/ K. Mansfield)
73 (12/16/98 D. Stotz)
83 (12/4 w/ K. Mansfield, J. Engel)

*Our September total set a new state record for Illinois (not just northern Illinois), beating the previous September record of 141 set on 09/16/00 by F. Bennett, D. Kassebaum, K. McMullen

 **Our October total set a new state record for Illinois (not just northern Illinois), beating the previous October record of 127 set on  10/01/00 F. Bennett, D. Kassebaum, K. McMullen. Six days later, Kassebaum and T. Mahan set out to reclaim the October record, and are successful, finding 131 species near Lake Carlyle in southern Illinois.

A few other interesting stats:

Total species recorded for all 12 days: 254 (about 1.4 species per hour)

Total hours in the field:  180

Total miles driving: ~4,500 (a bit more than the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles, round-trip)

So what’s up for 2012? We know we can do better in January and February, and we have that March record to take back. After that, well, the all-time state record for Illinois is 184 species (recorded in May).

I think we can beat 200 species in a day, and I’m working on a route…after all, 2011 was just the warm-up act.

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